Congress staring down deadlines on debt ceiling, children’s healthcare and defense


September is crunch time for Congress, which has punted on a slew of critical legislation now set to expire by the end of the month.

Lawmakers return from the summer recess on Sept. 5 and will get right to work on a massive government spending bill, now complicated by the sudden need for a significant infusion of federal funds to help Houston recover from epic flooding caused last month by Hurricane Harvey.

Republican aides told the Washington Examiner the path forward on fiscal 2018 spending has not been determined, but that the appropriations panels are prepared with a short-term bailout measure, known as a continuing resolution, that would buy Congress more time to work out a longterm plan.

But there isn’t much time to get it done.

The fiscal year ends on Sept. 30 and if Congress does not refresh funding by then, a partial government shutdown would result.

Efforts to pass the spending bill could be complicated by President Trump’s desire for funding for a southern border wall.

The GOP-led House passed spending legislation including $1.6 billion for the structure, but the GOP-led Senate cannot do the same without encountering a Democratic filibuster, which could threaten government funding by the deadline.

Some speculate Trump will not sign a spending bill unless it includes the wall, which he has threatened to do.

But Congress is determined to avoid the specter of a shutdown over the wall funding, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said during an Aug. 23 news conference.

“I don’t think anyone’s interested in having us shut down,” Ryan said. “I don’t think it’s in our interest to do so.”

The fiscal 2018 spending bill will be complicated by demands for potentially billions of dollars to mitigate the damage caused by Harvey.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said last week during a Houston press conference that the state will seek “a downpayment up front” from Congress, which could be followed by additional spending requests later on.

The last major disaster spending bill in Congress passed in 2013 following Superstorm Sandy and cost $50.5 billion.

In addition fiscal 2018 spending, Congress must pass several other major measures by the end of the month, and all are complicated by factors that could make them hard to move across the finish line.

  • The debt ceiling: The nation’s borrowing limit is running dry and must be lifted by the end of the month, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has warned. Republican leaders are eager to get it done, but the most conservative GOP faction has warned they won’t approve it without spending reforms. Democrats, who normally vote for debt ceiling increases, are threatening to use their leverage to extract GOP concessions on other legislation in exchange for their approval of a debt ceiling increase.
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program: This critical program that provides health insurance for eight million low-income children will run out of funding on Sept. 30. The effort to renew funding could be complicated by some Republicans who want the bill to include Obamacare reform provisions, such as a repeal of the law’s medical device tax.
  • Federal Aviation Administration: Authorization for the FAA ends at the end of the month, but neither the House nor the Senate has passed legislation to extend the program. It may be hard to pass a long-term reauthorization of the FAA because the House and Senate have authored different bills. Most notably, the House bill would privatize the nation’s Air Traffic Control division, a proposal endorsed by President Trump and Ryan, but not all Republicans. The Senate bill does not include ATC privatization.

“We’re feeling confident about passing the bill before the end of September,” House Transportation Committee spokesman Justin Harclerode told the Washington Examiner. “We have been continuously working to answer member questions, getting positive responses, and building more momentum”

  • Defense authorization: Senate Republicans in July were eager to take up a bill authorizing defense spending, but the measure was blocked by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who wants the legislation to include a new war powers authorization act. Consideration could also be complicated by Senate Armed Service Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer.
  • Obamacare stabilization: The packed and complicated schedule will also include action on Obamacare, according to Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. Alexander said he plans a “small, bipartisan and balanced” bill that would include year-long funding for the healthcare law’s cost-sharing subsidies, which are needed to stabilize the markets.

Alexander said Congress must act or millions would be left with sharp premium increases or no health insurance options at all. Lawmakers have discussed putting the cost-sharing subsidies in the Children’s Health Insurance Program measure. Alexander has scheduled a Sept. 7 hearing.

  • Flood insurance: As thousands of claims from Harvey pour into the National Flood Insurance Program, it, too is set to expire on Sept. 30. The program is insolvent and owes the Treasury more than $23 million. Many Republican lawmakers and some Democrats are demanding reforms to the program, but Harvey’s timing may enable quick passage of at least a short-term extension.

The House and Senate have authored separate long-term extension measures. The House version includes reforms that would allow privatization and end federal insurance for properties that repeatedly flood. The Senate excluded those reforms, which attracted opposition from lawmakers representing flood-prone states.

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Congress staring down deadlines on debt ceiling, children’s healthcare and defense

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